NFP preseason Top 25

With the 2011 college football season commencing a week from Thursday, let’s take a look at the NFP’s preseason Top 25.

1. LSU: The Tigers hold their post-spring spot atop the rankings, although the reported fight involving quarterback Jordan Jefferson — the senior quarterback praised by head coach Les Miles throughout the offseason for his improvement on and off the field — definitely adds another layer of intrigue for the season opener against Oregon at Cowboys Stadium.

Ronnell LewisICONIt's uncertain whether OU defensive end Ronnell Lewis will be eligible this season.

2. Oklahoma: Star linebacker Travis Lewis will miss the nonconference tilt against Florida State in Tallahassee, and the Sooners could be without defensive end Ronnell Lewis as well. But with an explosive offense, OU will be primed for a spot in the BCS national championship game entering the Bedlam matchup against rival Oklahoma State.

3. Oregon: The Ducks had a tumultuous offseason with the investigation centering on Willie Lyles and off-the-field issues involving Kiko Alonso and Cliff Harris. But as long as they’re able to get production out of their receiving corps, the Ducks could be on the verge of a third straight BCS berth.

4. Alabama: It doesn’t matter who is under center in Tuscaloosa — AJ McCarron, Phillip Sims or both — he’ll have a Heisman Trophy-contending running back and a stout defense helping the cause.

5. Boise State: Kellen Moore should be able to continue a successful vertical passing game with Tyler Shoemaker and Geraldo Hiwat, and only home games against Nevada and TCU stand in their way if the Broncos get past Georgia in the season opener at the Georgia Dome.

6. Florida State: Quarterback E.J. Manuel has starting experience filling in for the injured Christian Ponder the last few seasons, and the Seminoles seemed primed to return to national prominence under second-year head coach Jimbo Fisher.

7. Oklahoma State: There won’t be much tinkering with the offense under new coordinator Todd Monken — not when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon lead an explosive unit. But can the defense step up, especially in the team’s biggest contests?

8. Virginia Tech: Tyrod Taylor put the Hokies on his back so many times during his career, particularly last season after the team’s 0-2 start. New signal-caller Logan Thomas will use his 6-6, 242-pound frame to do the same. The dual-threat has a top running back in David Wilson and a Bud Foster defense to complement the offense. And looking at the Hokies’ schedule, running the table is not too far-fetched.

9. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers begin their debut campaign in the Big Ten, and they could claim the Legends division title if quarterback Taylor Martinez can stay healthy in the new offense because the defense may be Bo Pelini’s best yet.

10. Arkansas: Quarterback Tyler Wilson will have perhaps the nation's best set of receivers at his disposal, but the loss of running back Knile Davis was a huge blow. Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson must step up, especially on third-and-short situations.

Andrew LuckICONStanford's Andrew Luck begins the season as the Heisman frontrunner.

11. Stanford: While Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck is back, the Cardinal lost three offensive linemen and their top receivers. Most importantly, Jim Harbaugh can’t be replaced — no matter how much the players may like and respect new head coach David Shaw. And how will the defense, which was much improved in 2010, respond with coordinator Vic Fangio joining Harbaugh in San Francisco.

12. Texas A&M: The Aggies not only will get big chunks of yards on the ground from Cyrus Gray, but a healthy Christine Michael returns to the backfield as well. With Ryan Tannehill directing a dangerous offense, Tim DeRuyter’s defense will have to continue to make strides in his second season as coordinator.

13. TCU: While the Horned Frogs lost a ton of quality seniors from last year’s Rose Bowl-winning squad, youth will not be an excuse this fall for a team headed to the Big East in 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall may not be Andy Dalton, but the Horned Frogs will always run the ball and play ferocious defense.

14. South Carolina: There’s no question that Steve Spurrier has his most talented team in Columbia. Ellis Johnson’s front seven will dominate at times, but can the secondary improve? Still, the play of Stephen Garcia will determine if this team repeats as SEC East champions — no matter if the division is perceived as the weak link of the league.

15. Ohio State: Luke Fickell begins his first — and possibly only — year in Columbus without his top running back, wide receiver and left tackle for the first five games of the season. And upon their return, the Buckeyes must face Nebraska in Lincoln. But for all of the drama the team has endured, there’s still a lot left in the cupboard. The only question is how soon will Braxton Miller line up under center?

16. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs will continue to improve offensively with quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard, but it will be interesting to see how the defense looks without Manny Diaz, who left for Texas.

17. Michigan State: The Spartans return most of their best players from last season’s 11-2 squad. However, the team didn’t come to play in their two biggest games last season — the road tilt at Iowa and the Capital One Bowl against Alabama. Mark Dantonio can’t let that happen again.

18. Notre Dame: After finishing the 2010 season with four consecutive victories, many believe that the Fighting Irish could compete for a spot in the BCS. Brian Kelly’s offense can score points no matter who is under center, so the key is whether Bob Diaco’s unit can pick up where it left off last season.

19. Wisconsin: While the Badgers lost six All-Big Ten standouts, their production from the running back position and across the offensive line makes this team an annual contender. Throw in quarterback Russell Wilson, and this team could be the team to beat in the Big Ten, especially if a pass rusher emerges to take the place of J.J. Watt.

Gene ChizikICONAuburn's Gene Chizik lost a lot of talent from his national championship squad.

20. Auburn: Barrett Trotter has the unenviable task of replacing Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. But the biggest question for the Tigers is on the defensive side of the ball, where they lost seven starters from last season. While they may not be as stout against the run, an improved pass defense could actually make Ted Roof’s unit more balanced.

21. USC: If Matt Barkley has his full complement of receivers healthy, this offense will have no trouble scoring points. The biggest question is whether the defense grasps Monte Kiffin’s scheme in year two of the system. This offseason, it was so far so good.

22. West Virginia: Dana Holgorsen’s arrival was the greatest thing to happen to quarterback Geno Smith, who has looked very comfortable directing this offense during the offseason. The Mountaineers are the most talented team in the Big East, but they are prone to slip up against inferior competition.

23. Missouri: The Tigers have plenty of firepower surrounding new quarterback James Franklin as well as a good offensive line despite the terrible loss of starting left tackle Elvis Fisher to a season-ending knee surgery. Losing Aldon Smith hurts, but the pass rush should still be consistent. Road contests against Arizona State and Oklahoma make for a difficult September slate.

24. Florida: The secondary is a major question, especially with Janoris Jenkins being banished by first-year head coach Will Muschamp. But the defensive line potentially could be filthy. The question on everyone’s mind is can coordinator Charlie Weis make John Brantley and this offense more productive?

25. Maryland: Randy Edsall has arrived with his no-nonsense attitude, and new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton inherited last year’s ACC freshman of the year Danny O’Brien at quarterback. Keep an eye on Kenny Tate, a special defender who has moved over to linebacker from safety.

On the cusp: Arizona State, BYU, North Carolina, Northwestern, Southern Miss

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